Stay Out of Ethical Hot Water When Integrating Big Data

Loraine Lawson
Slide Show

Overstepping the Line Between Big Data and Big Brother?

We keep hearing about data’s value. Data is the new oil, we’re told, valuable not just for business insight, but for actually driving new revenue growth in its own right.

But you know what Biggie said: Mo’ money, mo’ problems.

The more businesses try to monetize data, the more problems they will encounter, experts are warning.


Anne Buff, an evangelist in the SAS Best Practices organization, argues that data is an ethical land mine for companies integrating social data and other Big Data with internal master data in the hopes that it will illuminate customers in new ways.

While data is ethically neutral, the use of data is not, she writes. That’s particularly worrying since we have few regulations or rules about how to use this new breed of external data.

Traditionally, external data sets such as customer lists and financial data are acquired under contracts, from specific service providers, and with strict usage guidelines.

That’s not the case with many Big Data sets, particularly the kind companies collect and integrate on their own. That doesn’t mean you can use that data any way you want without repercussions, however.

“But, if not defined by a specific governing body, we may overlook the data management practices that strike the nervous chords of our target populations,” Buff writes. “We are consistently seeing more news reports about brand-damaging situations companies are facing because the ethical implications of their actions were just not considered.”

Buff isn’t the only one sounding the warning. Big Data company Revolution Analytics recently surveyed 865 statisticians and data scientists in the U.S. and Canada. Eighty-eight percent said consumers should be worried about data privacy.

A clear majority, 80 percent, said there should be an ethical framework in place for collecting and using data. The results actually varied by industry, with 92 percent in the life scientists/health care industry agreeing that an ethical framework is needed compared to 76 percent in the education industry.

Fortunately, more than half of data scientists and statisticians say they’re already using an ethical framework as part of their work with data.

Being aware of the potential pitfalls when integrating data is half the battle, but if your company doesn’t have an ethical framework for data, Buff recommends you take four steps to avoid data landmines:

  1. Specify your core organizational values, and be transparent about them in all communications.
  2. Assess and keep on top of the values of your customers.
  3. Regularly audit your data handling processes to ensure your actions and values align.
  4. Communicate these values internally, and externally to your customers.


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